The following is an interview with Philip Hirzel regarding the recent release of the horror-themed RPG, Midnight Showings. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Hirzel about the creative process of working with Jason Haddox and Kyle Young to bring the world and characters to life, what they hope that players will take away from the experience, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the recent launch of Midnight Showings! For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you share with us about the premise of the gaming system?
Philip Hirzel: Thank you very much! From the beginning we wanted a session of Midnight Showings to emulate watching your favorite horror movie. As a tabletop roleplaying game there is a game master (Director) and players (Actors) who use theater of the mind and dice rolls to tell an improvised narrative. The Director sets the story while the Actors decide what course it takes depending on who their character is and how they would react. It’s a collaborative story you and your friends are telling each other, which is what I love about the medium.
We have your standard rolls like any TTRPG (Athletics to find out if you can climb a tree, etc.) but combat plays out differently, more engaging and faster paced. During an attack both the offense and the defense roll against one another with applicable stats, and damage is a set number depending on the attack. Character health is low to begin with and stays low, so combat isn’t a focus but rather a last resort.
Our main goal was simplicity without sacrificing depth; easy enough to pick up the rules in a trial by fire, but balanced enough that your rolls still have weight to them.
BD: How would you describe your creative process of working with Jason Haddox and Kyle Young to create this world and in bringing the characters and overall design to life?
PH: Jason and I both have a history with movies. We met at film school and worked on multiple projects together before, so there was a creative ease to start with. He was the one who brought the initial Midnight Showings pitch in 2017, and the creative process felt very organic. I think almost everyone has hypothesized whether or not they would survive a horror movie, and the similarity between classes in fantasy RPGs and archetypes in horror films was something that just clicked one day.
I tend to be very “experience” focused, on how playing should feel, and Jason has a sort of magic bringing those abstract ideas into a playable mechanic. He also deftly handled all the design and did a fair amount of the artwork throughout the manual. Kyle acted as a buffer for the both of us, not only keeping our ideas from going too far, but as the most consistent gamer he brought clarity and familiarity to our newer concepts.
I don’t wanna say it came naturally. There were a lot of failed ideas and far too many dead ends, including a six-month period where we had just called it quits. But the final girl has to lose everything to find the strength to push on, right?
BD: As an avid RPG fan yourself, what did you and the team hope to change about the player experience when creating Midnight Showings, and what did you want to maintain?
PH: First and foremost, we wanted it to be approachable. Player experience was always a major focus, not just as Actors but as Directors, too. Being the guy relegated to DMing in other TTRPGs and never playing a character, we wanted to keep things easy enough that if you’ve acted in a few stories, you can probably direct one, too. Having the stories designed as one-shots that can be played in a single session really helps people feel comfortable sitting in the Director’s chair and trying new things out.
Nothing kills the mood more than someone trying to figure out what they need to roll for when the beast is stalking them down the hall. We wanted a game based more on characters and narrative than numbers and stats, so a lot of work went into developing a character creation process that felt intuitive and offered variety. But we also didn’t want to sacrifice the feeling of a classic RPG. It was always a matter of “does this rule improve the experience of the players? Does it help streamline the mechanics or does it bog things down? Could I teach this to a brand new player in a few sentences or less?”
On top of all that was aesthetic, which Jason has done a brilliant job conveying through the manual. So many horror-themed games out there are Lovecraft based or still set in fantasy worlds and, God bless them, we wanted to go a different direction. More survival than combative. You can still do nameless faceless horror with Midnight Showings, but you could just as easily remake Friday the 13th or The Witch with it. My general rule is, when working on the contents of the manual and stories both, if it doesn’t feel like an obscure movie I’ve discovered in some abandoned VHS rental that I need to see then it doesn’t belong.
BD: What can players anticipate about the resources and tools available within the game book?
PH: Obviously, there are the Midnight Showings rules, and the essential functions of how to play a TTRPG, so if you are entirely new to that style of game you’ll be set up and good to go. Not just the idea of how to play and the applied mechanics, we’ve also included penalties on Meta-Gaming (acting on information your character doesn’t have) and a Scoring system for the end of games (who played most to their character, achieved narrative beats, and is essentially your Lead Actor)
For the Actors there are 6 Character Types (The Beauty, The Benevolent, The Bohemian, The Brains, The Brawn, The Wildcard) each with their own 4 Archetypes (i.e., the Brains has The Sleuth, The Nerd, The Loner, The Coward) who have their own Knacks and Lacks and Objectives, not to mention a Relationship to “the person to your left.” I personally like it when my Actors build theirs well in advance, but you can literally assemble a character with a unique personality, narrative objective, and interpersonal relationships with a few dice rolls within minutes.
The manual provides Directors with the necessary rules to run a game and some open guidance on how to construct your own story, but we also have a few tools for them to play around with. To me, half the fun of any RPG are the monsters or creatures your Actors face up against. Instead of having hundreds of pages of a bestiary we made FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER MAKER, which allows Directors to build custom ghoulies tailored to their story. We also have the STAB-LIBS STORY GENERATOR and the SLASHER STARTER KIT, which allow you to create a template for your story and a variety of different slashers with the roll of the dice.
Towards the end, we have an appendix, featuring a ton of tables with items to populate the world with, including weapons, clothing, and special items, all of which can give your characters special bonuses when trying to survive against all types of monsters and fiends.
BD: Do you feel that this gaming system will be accessible for both seasoned RPG fans and those who may be new to the experience?
PH: We went into this design with the intent to create a fun horror movie RPG that can be spontaneously put together or well planned in advance. It’s rules-light, but it still has rules. We’ve played with people who run steady D&D campaigns and others who have literally never held a d20, sometimes in the same session, and all parties really seem to enjoy the flow and excitement of the game.
BD: Are there any other projects on which you are working that you would like to share with readers?
PH: We plan to continue releasing official Midnight Showings stories to play. We’ve already released a ’70s theme “double feature” with Snowed In At Ardelean’s Estate and Isle of the Long Tooth with an ’80s package planned next. We are also discussing using Midnight Showings to start a horror anthology podcast, playing out a new story every season. Exciting things ahead!
Otherwise, between Jason and I, half a dozen new ideas were pitched over the course of making Midnight Showings. I can’t really say too much at the moment at what we want to actually move on, but the current lead continues the horror thread as a gamemaster-less, role-playing party game with elements of choose your own adventure, that will specifically capitalize on the zany feeling of movies like Evil Dead II.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about the Midnight Showings?
PH: Find the manual and the first double feature at DriveThruRPG and say hi over at @yorzoxgames on Instagram. We’ll be posting new content for Midnight Showings every now and then, including future double features, one-sheet story ideas to help jumpstart your creativity, and free special edition Archetype and Monster sheets!